Still, word that no major leaks have been reported may be little comfort to local communities, which already have to plan for low-level contamination incidents and the risk of further contamination thanks to regular (albeit more mundane) flooding in the area. Many of those communities tend to fall into TEJAS’s “environmental justice” category; marginalized by race, income, or both, they face the greatest dangers from contamination and the longest road to recovery.
Superfund sites aren’t the only polluted zones affected by Harvey. There are several Resource Conservation and Recovery Act–managed areas—active dumping or waste sites being managed by the EPA—around Houston, too. But Superfund sites contain some of the worst hazards—old plants and dumps that operated before the EPA’s rules were in place—the mitigation of which requires federal oversight and funding. Environmentalists told me after Harvey that the agency may not be up to the task, and that its readiness is in decline.
The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 established the EPA’s Superfund program to remediate or recover contaminated sites that couldn’t continue to be used. Though federal funding kicks in if offending companies won’t foot the bill, it hasn’t always been adequate.
Originally, environmental taxes on chemical manufacturers and other companies supported the government’s share. But since the taxes were repealed in 2001, appropriations from the federal general fund have paid for the program. That money dwindled in the ensuing years, since Congress always appropriated less than the expected revenue from the old taxes, and the number of Superfund cleanups plummeted. Environmental activists and lawyers fear the EPA’s capabilities to monitor and manage Superfund sites are diminishing, too. And one key component of that monitoring and management is disaster response.
“I see a severe problem with the lack of funding for EPA, because it renders them unable to respond to a disaster like this,” said Lisa Evans, a senior counsel at the environmental-law organization Earthjustice. “One has to budget for these inevitable contingencies, otherwise you can leave those communities high and dry.”
Harvey isn’t the first hurricane to threaten people with contamination and test the EPA’s mettle. Perhaps the worst-case scenario for Houston right now is what happened in the Gulf region after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. According to Erik Olson, the director of the health program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, flooding from Katrina, and from Hurricane Rita just weeks later, clearly disrupted hazardous-waste sites at dozens of Superfund and RCRA sites.
“The problem is that you could see a lot of waste that was supposedly ‘under control’ getting mobilized into waterways and spreading throughout the community,” Olson said. Working with the NRDC and other environmental groups, local residents did their own water testing and “found widespread contamination around Superfund and RCRA sites.”